Consider the issue of densification in London. The Jubilee Line extension has opened up large parts of the city, in turn creating ideal opportunities for urban densification along its route. Southwark and Canada Water stations both fall within the borough of Southwark, yet the response to the development potential of each station could not be more different. Just around the corner from Southwark Station, the Tate Modern has attracted more than 5 million visitors and generated more than £30m of additional wealth in its first year. This is an admirable example of realising the potential of new infrastructure.
But what about Canada Water Station? This is only one stop from Canary Wharf, the second largest office location in London, but so far no plans have emerged for the publicly owned land outside the station. Instead, a group representing local interests has been meeting for over a year considering the very question of densification itself. The current regeneration philosophy tells us that such local involvement is to be applauded. But what about when this local interest directly contradicts government policy?
Local involvement has been one of the positive changes in urban development over the last few decades. The benefits have been the duty to listen, consider other opinions and engage local people in the regeneration process. These are still essential elements of regeneration, but after 20 years of statements supporting consultation, the limits of local participation are evident.
Such difficulties are not confined to major infrastructure developments and often arise on local projects as well. Regeneration in areas of deprivation presents complex social issues. Yet when local residents are consulted, the result is often the demand for more building work, particularly to individual dwellings. This is because capital works are much more straightforward than complex and diffuse programmes for employment, education achievement and personal issues such as debt management. For a local tenant, work done to their own home has an obvious, direct benefit and certainly makes sense. However, this individualistic approach is the urban equivalent of papering over cracks in a wall. Someone needs to ask whether it is the best way of spending public money.
How has it happened that local residents believe their interests are paramount? The promotion of local consultation by central government – keen to appear responsive to the concerns and needs of the people who keep it in power – must take a large chunk of the blame. On the one hand, the government wants to suggest that it is open to local concerns, but then goes on to ignore them when they don't match its own agenda.
Take the example of the New Deal for Communities programme. Central government bypassed local authorities, claiming that they impeded the direct responses from local people, and went straight to the residents. However, when the resulting local plans were put to central government, many of them were rejected. So much for locals knowing best. But should the government have given the impression that the allocation of public money could be decided that way in the first place?
Legislators assumed consultation on regeneration would eventually produce better citizens. So far, this theory remains unproven. Too many projects rapidly become confrontations between local people and funding agencies
Legislators assumed that local consultation on regeneration work would lead to greater community engagement and eventually to better citizens. So far, this theory remains unproven.
Too many regeneration projects rapidly become confrontations between local people and funding agencies. The impression residents get is that the problems facing them are someone else's fault and that the solution is state subsidy. Instead of building up the community, such consultation exercises leave behind individuals less able to deal with their situation.
Regeneration needs leadership, technical contributions and defined parameters to gain the best for local residents. Local involvement should be placed in that context. In addition, the quality of the assessment and the appropriateness of the proposed actions need to be judged and to be open to scrutiny. Then regeneration will be seen first as a technical process and then as a political decision.
The new planning green paper recognises that the political judgment should be made at national or regional level for those projects with significance beyond a local area. This can only be good for local action groups. They will need to see that their technical concerns are presented effectively and within the context of government policy.
Politics is different from consultation. As the writer John Lloyd points out, politicians have the responsibility for ordering priorities, reconciling competing interests among their constituencies, maintaining public accountability and implementing practical solutions. Local views are one factor in the political process. Local determination cannot replace the politics.
Fred Manson is former director of regeneration at Southwark council.